IN Chiyoda, a ward of Tokyo occupied by government buildings and embassies, there stands a high-rise building that has become an unlikely place of pilgrimage and inspiration. Its spartan facade reveals nothing of the work that goes on inside, but anyone with even a cursory interest in the work of Nintendo EAD Tokyo knows it as a place where dreams are made.
Score: 9.5 / 10
In early 2012, a group of coders, designers and artists assembled in one of the Wonkaesque domain’s meeting rooms to formulate plans for the Wii U’s first Mario game proper. On one wall, they stuck a series of Post-It notes, each sheaf of paper articulating thoughts and notions, some more viable or fully-formed than others. There was, by all accounts, no grand Eureka moment; instead, the team supervised by Yoshiaki Koizumi and overseen by Shigeru Miyamoto made a momentous decision: why choose one note as the premise for their project when they could choose as many as they wished?
The result of their labours is Super Mario 3D World, one of the most coherent and evocative expressions of Nintendo’s philosophy of game design for several years. Unleashed at a time when the emergence of a new console generation has heralded a suffocating statistical war waged around resolution and processing power, Mario’s latest outing is a testimony of the values that truly matter in gaming: judicious level design, free flowing controls and above all, the confidence to pursue a singular and unyielding vision.
The entire plot of 3D World is laid out in the first few minutes via a single illustrative speech bubble from a distressed fairy taken hostage by arch antagonist Bowser. It is a brief but entirely sufficient summary. In Mario, the story and characters have always been functional, serving the game’s design rather than vice versa. The introduction over before it has begun, you are offered control over one of four series stalwarts - Mario, Luigi, Toad and, in a welcome return, Princess Peach, each with their own qualities - before being plunked into a miniaturised world map.
Immediately, its structure reveals the game has more in common with a title like Super Mario World as opposed to the lauded Mario Galaxy strand.The scale of the levels is reined in, while the pseudo-isometric vantage point plays a clever trick, offering the aesthetics of a three dimensional world but gameplay that fundamentally harks back to the plumber’s two dimensional origins. For the avoidance of doubt, this not a criticism; the opposite, in fact.
3D World is a celebration of inventiveness. Every square foot of its taut, precision engineered world is teeming with diverse and distinct ideas. No sooner are you slithering around a frozen expanse in a giant ice skate than you are gripping on to a dinosaur’s scaly back as it hurtles downwards over a crescent of waterfalls, or stalking stealthily past a platoon of Goombas wearing - what else - a Goomba mask. Whereas some developers might seize upon one such innovation and construct an entire game it, Nintendo is appreciative of their appeal but never constrained by them.
The love of the new means there is an almost ephemeral feel to aspects of the game. Inventions are introduced then jettisoned, such is its boundless energy and ambition. Some, like the Fire Flower, are appropriated from previous Mario titles, while others are plucked out of nowhere and stirred into the mix. Consequently, no one element or mechanic dominates proceedings, and every stage and world is a Matryoshka doll of concepts.
The highlight is the much talked about Cat Suit, a quintessentially Nintendo feature - implausible in theory, yet consummate in practice. Once you have forgiven a middle aged Italian’s unsettling propensity for dressing up as a straw-coloured tomcat, the purpose of the peccadillo becomes clear. Armed with retractable claws, Mario can scamper up once insurmountable walls, or inflict a slashing rebuke to hostile Goombas. The device presents a wealth of navigable choices, with the verticality it introduces to the series necessitating a reappraisal of how progress might be made.
The game also heralds the debut of the Double Cherry. Launching a doppelgänger of the protagonist into the game world, the stackable power up allows you and a mimicking band to co-operate to overcome various obstacles. Supposedly the result of a mistake in development, the decision to retain the power up is inspired, even if it is underutilised in comparison to other devices.
The levels are peppered with common features, whether it be pipes, jumps or disintegrating features, yet no two stages feel identical. Each follows the time honoured Nintendo strategy of revelation before instruction and every few minutes, the game reminds you of its desire to astonish. Take an early level, for example, where the action segues without warning into silhouettes, asking the player to control not their character, but their shadow, in a landscape where all is not as it seems.
Scattered throughout these realms are the kind of fleeting and peripheral distractions that have become the vocabulary of any self-respecting Mario game. Mini levels task you with revolving the camera to aid the flat-footed Toad on a safe path, blowing into the GamePad’s microphone to move platforms. Mid-world bosses pop out from nowhere to obstruct the paths of the world maps, while bountiful fruit machines promise a bevy of riches to those feeling lucky. The game’s anatomy is a wondrous, multi-limbed beast.
The aesthetics of the world, meanwhile, are indisputably the most enchanting of any Mario game to date. The Wii U has reached technical maturity with this game, revealing vivid colours and textures to usher the timeless mascot into the HD era in earnest. The animation, no less refined, lends charm to proceedings, in particular Mario’s new feline alter ego - any cat owner will grin at seeing the character’s lolling strut or the wiggling of the rear end that preempts an attack. The music, too, is a delight, with a swinging, jazz-inspired score toying around with well known musical motifs from the series.
The game’s failings are mercifully few, yet frustrating. In co-operative play, the goal of creating a blistering, competitive mode is sullied by a surprisingly obvious glitch in the control setup which means the button for running is also utilised for picking up objects, meaning that you will often find yourself unwittingly hurling an ally to their demise. On occasion, meanwhile, the difficulty spike is severe and without warning.
Overall, however, 3D World is a totem to Nintendo’s fertile imagination and stubborn desire to march to its own beat. Abiding by a template laid down in the NES era and tinkered with in the decades since, it is a fusion of the old, the new and the unimaginable. Comfortably the best Wii U game to date, it is sure to delight those who cherish Mario games. More importantly, it is a timely reminder that for all the dizzying technical specifications of a new generation of games, the capacity to constantly surprise is a quality as rare as it is timeless.
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